Semantic arguments are a sideshow when the subject is the destruction of peoples, writes Rawiri Taonui, adjunct professor of indigenous studies at AUT.

Jewish Council president Stephen Goodman's criticism of Keri Opai's view that Maori colonial experiences compare to a holocaust is simplistic.

He labelled the claim an ignorant attempt to elevate Maori grievances that trivialises and diminishes the genocide of European Jews.

However, several scholars have taken issue with Jewish claims to exclusive use of the term holocaust. For instance, it excludes millions of other victims of the Nazi extermination including socialists, homosexuals, the disabled, Romani (Gypsies), Slavs, Poles and Soviet prisoners of war (2.8 million Russian POWs died in one eight-month period).


Used for four centuries in Europe to describe various massacres, others argue the Armenians have the first claim to its formal use. The Ottoman Empire caused one million Armenian deaths during World War I. Winston Churchill termed that a holocaust. In 1922 a now eminent poem titled The Holocaust was composed, and in the following year a book The Syrma Holocaust appeared.

After World War II, holocaust was used to describe the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, the 1930s Stalin-induced Ukrainian Great Famine and Japan's suppression of Korea and Manchuria.

From the 1950s onwards, holocaust was increasingly used to refer to the Nazi genocide, often as a translation of the Jewish descriptor shoah (catastrophe) or the Yiddish term churben (destruction). Nora Levin's book The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry appeared in 1968.

The unqualified formal use of "Holocaust with a capital H" as the terror of the Jews did not come about until after the 1978 TV mini-series of the same name starring Meryl Streep. A majority of the world's named Holocaust centres date from then.

Holocaust with a small "h" continues to be used to describe events such as African slavery, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the Rwanda slaughter and indigenous colonial histories.

While I believe Holocaust defines the Jewish experience - the horrific pinnacle of industrial-scale human extermination - I also understand why indigenous peoples use the term, not just to define their experience, but more importantly to highlight the denial of their experience.

Writers such as David Stannard and Ward Churchill, who attest the colonisation of the Americas was a holocaust, argue that condemnations like Mr Goodman's actually reinforce the denial of horrors perpetrated upon indigenous populations.

That denial has a history. Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide" in 1943 providing a broad based definition including physical, political, social, biological and cultural genocide. The latter was applicable to indigenous contexts, Lemkin arguing genocide could be immediate or cumulative over time.


Historian David Cesarani went further. He said over the longer term the oppression of colonised peoples can be more costly than the Holocaust.

Lemkin subsequently drafted a UN Convention on Genocide in 1946. The Soviet Union opposed his definitions because of its record of political suppression. The United States, France and Britain did so as well because of their colonial records.

When the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCPPCG) was adopted two years later, the reference to cultural genocide had been effectively expunged. Administered under the Rome Statute (1998) and International Criminal Court (2002), Article 2 defines genocide as any acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group such as killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting particular living conditions, preventing birth and forcibly removing children.

With an emphasis squarely on state "intent", the outcome has been that Western European countries have been able to prosecute leaders from weaker developing and Eastern Europe countries, while exonerating themselves for any colonial transgressions on the basis that they were the inadvertent consequences of "civilising" projects.

In 1993, the former British colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States (Canzus) opposed the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which included prohibitions against "ethnocide" and "cultural genocide". As a result the terms "cultural destruction" and "forced assimilation" were moved into a separate section, and ethnocide and cultural genocide replaced by genocide, which by default referral to the 1948 Convention and Rome Statute, again protected Western countries with colonial baggage.

UNDRIP was passed at the UN General Assembly in 2007 - 143 countries voted in support, only the Canzus four voted against.

In the search for due recognition, writers and academics continue to use the terms cultural genocide and holocaust to describe colonisation in the Pacific, Americas, Tibet, East Turkmenistan and other places.

When Tariana Turia made her holocaust reference in 2000, Judy Sedley from the Wellington Jewish Community Centre said that might be appropriate if Maori used the term with a small "h".

Posterity might determine that the Jewish Holocaust belongs alongside an Armenian and other holocausts and "Colonial Genocide" might describe many indigenous experiences.

In a debate about honouring by acknowledgement the inestimable numbers of humans over many generations who suffered in this way, those who condemn indigenous peoples lack the humanity and grace of Lemkin. Suffering is never a competition.